There are tiny grilled cheese sandwiches perched upon shot glasses of tomato soup. There are charcuterie and cheese boards and wine and servers looking cross-eyed at me when I say may I just have a club soda please? The lights are dimmed on a crisp winter evening in Chicago as people filter in after their conference calls or sending that last email – for now – and there’s laughter and nervous chatter about the weather and families and whispers about business when there shouldn’t be because that’s not why we are here. The tables are wrapped with crisp linens and stacked with old books to lend ambiance, but all I can think is what if someone spills wine on these old books?
It’s been coming for months, almost years, but it’s finally happening. The end of an era in our office. And it’s just the beginning. There will be more and more retiring in the coming years, and with each one, I will break down a little more. There are work relationships and there are friendships and there are co-workers and there are colleagues. There are mentors and mentees and there are bosses and subordinates. There are sworn enemies who sometimes become trusted confidants. There are people you are seated by just by chance and they become your best friend. There are people you cannot stand to hear walking in from a mile away and you make promises under your breath that one day there will be karmic retribution. There are the ones you will work alongside for decades and never get more than a whisper into their lives and there are those you know every single thing about just by passing their desk on the way to get coffee. I won’t say which one I am, but my cube doesn’t have a centimeter of blank space that isn’t lined with the faces of those I long to be with when I am at work.
There are people who are there. Day after day, year after year, month after month. Through the mud and the muck and the lay offs and the hirings and the moves and the funerals and the sicknesses and the divorces and the babies and the graduations. There are those who will always always always talk with you about cats. Because who ever gets tired of talking about cats?
I got up at this retirement party last night and talked for a minute – while trying not to blubber too much – about the importance of this woman in my life. Reflections on a retirement. I don’t even know if the right words came out but the feelings were all there. All of them. I’m sad she’s leaving, I’m thankful for her service and care, I’m thrilled for her to be getting the hell out and gaining a life she’s never known full time.
When we think of how much time we spend working, toiling away, giving ourselves and our time and our energy and our most precious moments missed to this, we want to think it matters. That we haven’t been taken for granted, or worse, will be forgotten. What I want this woman to know is that she made a difference in my life. Her consistency, her dedication, her calm and her chaotic. Her steadfast kindness. Her willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt. Her trust and advice. Her loyalty. Her thoughtful gifts and cards. Her green thumb and bounty from her garden sitting on the office kitchen table for the taking. Her beautiful choices in scarves. Her ALWAYS making sure there was a vegetarian option for me. She was a master puzzle solver each and every day in the way she managed to keep things moving despite manic change. She has helped so many people on a day to day basis throughout her career that the numbers must be staggering.
It’s made me wonder what I will leave behind one day.
I’m a person who needed several second chances. I’m a person who didn’t deserve all those chances. And yet I’ve been granted grace over and over and over. This woman retiring was one who continually granted me some grace and many chances to do better. To be better. I can say with no hesitation that she is part of my success because she let me fail and try again. She doesn’t even know it. She doesn’t even realize the high regard I hold her in today. I didn’t always because I didn’t understand. I do now. Is this growth? Because it hurts. I AM HAVING A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT THIS.
She’s seen me through too many inappropriate work outfits and every shade of hair color and terrible relationships and drama drama drama and then through marriage and IVF and pregnancy and babies and maternity leave and becoming a full time working mother and balancing that – much of the time poorly – but always with a smile and a knowing glance. There’s a trusted history here.
This marking of a passage of time is painful. It is celebratory, but right in this moment it feels really hard. Like a chapter is closing for us left behind. And yet, for her, it is the beginning of something that I hope is so much better than she ever imagined. I cannot even fathom retirement, as I know she can’t either. She’s already taking master gardening classes and classes to keep her brain sharp. She is better than me at wanting to keep busy and active. She has trips planned with her husband of 50 years this year. WOW OH WOW.
A nurturing mother figure is not always who you think it will be. She’s not a mother in the sense that she never had kids of her own, but this woman has been a caretaker her entire career. I hope that in retirement she finds more time to care only for herself. No pinging of email and no crisis phone calls. At least not from the office. I won’t reduce her career to a mother figure because that is only one part of her. As it’s only one part of so many of us women in the workplace for so many years. But it does need to be acknowledged because while we are all professional stone cold foxes, we also need some mothering and to do some mothering for others, no matter what shape that takes.
I see myself in her shoes when I am 115 years old and finally able to retire, but until then, I would like to follow in her footsteps of being someone who is reliable and worthy of celebration at the end of a career that was full of fine work and dedication. She has so much to show for it, and should she ever forget just how important she was, I hope maybe she will read this and know that this one woman’s life was greatly impacted by her attention to this currently blonde detail.
I am a better person for having spent this time with you. I hope one day you actually walk out of this office and never ever come back. THAT is the end goal. Finding joy and satisfaction in a job well done is icing on the cake. May you have so much of this well-deserved cake, dear Maija. Spring is coming.
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